Interfaith Dialogue – Not Just Pointless But Dangerous
The fiftieth anniversary of the papal encyclical Nostra Aetate absolving the Jews of responsibility for killing Jesus has provoked paeans to the value of interreligious dialogue and calls for more of it. One such statement, entitled "Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity," issued earlier this month calls upon Jews to accept "the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters [to] work together to address the moral challenges of our era."
Few of the signatories will be known to readers of Michpacha, and those who are will be known primarily by virtue of their position on the fringes of Orthodoxy and beyond. Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy is one; Yitzchak "Yitz" Greenberg, who has called Jesus a "failed messiah," not a false one, just as Abraham and Moshe Rabbeinu were failed messiahs, afra l'pumei, is another.
While it is true, as the Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity (ORSC) puts it, that beginning with Vatican II the teachings of the Catholic Church have changed radically, theological dialogue had far less to do with that shift than the horrors of the Holocaust. To the extent that Jewish interlocutors were influential, a group of Hadassah ladies across the table would have been as effective as Jewish theologians of whatever stripe, who presumably had little authority to instruct Pope John XXIII in church doctrine.
And to attribute weakened resistance to the Nazis to a lack of "constructive dialogue" between Jews and Christians, as ORSC does, edges a little too close to moral equivalence for comfort. It was not the mutual enmity of Jews and Christians that set the stage for Nazi demonization, but rather the Catholic Church's millennial emphasis on the accursed state of the Jews and the calls of the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, in the On the Jews and Their Lies, for the razing of all Jewish houses of worship, as well as the homes of Jews.
Finally, the day is long past when changes in Church teachings might significantly lessen the darkest anti-Semitic urges. Christianity is pretty much a dead letter in increasingly atheist, even pagan, Europe. Yet obsessional anti-Semitism, in the form of virulent anti-Israel sentiment, is very much alive and well. Christian anti-Semitism turns out to have been only one expression of demonic furies going back to Sinai, and has largely been supplanted today by left-wing anti-Semitism.
As the churches have lost religious influence, they have too often become themselves centers of anti-Israel propaganda – e.g., the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and America's mainstream Protestant denominations. Even the Vatican has adopted a largely pro-Palestinian foreign policy and remained largely silent in the face of the decimation of Christian communities throughout the Muslim Middle East.
NONE OF THE FOREGOING is meant to encourage a stance of hostility to Christianity or to deny the benefits of working together on many issues of common interest. That is particularly true in America, where many Christian groups are far more ardent supporters of the security of the Jews of Israel than are the majority of American Jews.
The visceral antipathy to devout Christians is far more common among secular Jews than it is among the Orthodox. The latter naturally find many affinities with other believers in a G-d-run universe, as well as an important common interest in protecting religious liberty against the intrusions of the government. Rabbi Shimon Schwab used to say that American Jews are much better off living in a Christian America than an atheist America.
Effective partnership with Christians, however, does not depend on theological dialogue. Close relations with the Catholic Church and other Christian groups were the centerpiece of Rabbi Moshe Sherer's legislative strategy on many issues involving relations between state and religion, as well as on moral issues. Cardinal John O'Connor, the senior Catholic prelate in America, warmly embraced Rabbi Sherer whenever they met. But neither their warm personal relations nor their many joint projects entailed any theological dialogue.
FROM A JEWISH POINT OF VIEW, theological dialogue is both pointless and fraught with danger. Pointless because Judaism lacks a figure comparable to the Pope, who has the authority to unilaterally change Church doctrine. The greatest rabbis cannot change the slightest detail of halacha. And even if they possessed such authority, the imput of non-Jewish figures would be irrelevant, since Jewish belief and practice only emerges autochthonously from interpretation of the classic Jewish sources by those thoroughly grounded in the entire corpus.
But interfaith dialogue is far from a harmless waste of time. It is dangerous. By its very nature, such dialogue tends to resemble marriage therapy between squabbling spouses. Inevitably, each spouse will be counseled to make certain concessions for the sake of the relationship.
And there can be no doubt of the magnitude of Catholic concessions over the past half century and of those of certain Protestant groups. So the pressure will be on the Jews in interfaith dialogue to show reciprocity, either by saying kind things about Christianity or obscuring the very deep theological divide between Christianity and Torah Judaism.
Harvard professor Jon Levenson's critique of an earlier attempt by Jewish and Christian theologians to enunciate a set of common principles called Dabru Emet demonstrates how much obfuscation is inevitable ("How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue," Commentary, Dec. 2001). For instance, how can the Shema's affirmation of Hashem's absolute unity be reconciled with the trinitarian belief in a god and his begotten son – a belief classified as idol worship by the Rambam – under the rubric of worshipping "the same God"? How can Jews and Christians and Jews be said to "seek authority from the same book – the Bible – "when Jews interpret Tanach according to the Oral Torah, of which Christians have no part, and Christians according the so-called New Testament, which Jews reject?
Participation in interfaith dialogue provides a certain frisson of breaking longstanding taboos, and no doubt convinces the Jewish participants of their breadth of soul and intellectual openness. But the rewards are often at the cost of an honest portrayal of Torah thought. The greater the talent for rhetorical flourish the greater the danger.
"G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews; through Christianity to Christians, through Islam to Muslims," must have flowed trippingly from the keyboard when written by a prominent Orthodox spokesman. And does not the assertion in the same volume that "each of our faiths has only part of the truth. Together we will possess more of it," ring with eloquence?
But both the above statements are, at best, complete distortions of Torah. The Torah speaks of the Revelation at Sinai to an entire people as a unique event in human history never to be repeated. That Revelation is incommensurate with whatever refracted truth other religions have gleaned from Torah. And what basis is there in Torah for treating the Revelation at Sinai as only partial or in need of being supplemented by other religious traditions, which are not the products of direct Divine revelation (at least by our lights)?
To the credit of the author both the above statements were edited out of subsequent issues of his book, but they stand as a stark warning of the dangers of the ecumenical impulse.
The ORSC asserts that Jews and Christians are joined by more than divides them – i.e., "the ethical monotheism of Abraham." "Ethical monotheism" is a term that goes back to the followers of Moses Mendelssohn and through them to the founders of German Reform. Emphasis on "ethical monotheism" has always gone hand in hand with diminished adherence to the Law.
Indeed classical Reform, by abrogating of binding nature of halacha, has always shared with Paul, the founder of Christianity, a disdain for the Law as unnecessary, at best, and as deadening to a true relationship with G-d, at worst. Professor Levenson observed that Dabru Emet inevitably omitted the basic Jewish concept of law and commandment and distorted other crucial Jewish concepts in fundamental ways.
As a small religious minority, whose ranks are shrinking due to intermarriage and assimilation, Jews are endangered by downplaying what is distinctively Jewish and emphasizing commonalities with the dominant religion.
The greatest threat to Judaism from the spirit of ecumenism – "we each possess part of the truth; together we will possess more truth" – is that it provides a religious justification for intermarriage – "What's the problem, with marrying a non-Jew. Together we will possess more religious truth than either of us alone."